Philippines vows to crack down on illegal offshore gambling firms

MANILA (Reuters): Philippine authorities have launched a crackdown on illegal offshore gambling operators, several run by Chinese firms, as calls to ban these activities mount due to their alleged links to criminal syndicates.

Around 250 to 300 offshore gambling firms are operating in the Philippines without a licence, the chief of the country's gaming regulator said on Thursday, around six times more than the 46 legitimate gaming operators in the country.

"Together with the police, we search for these illegal operators, conduct raids, and shut them down," Alejandro Tengco, chairman of state regulator Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp (PAGCOR), told Reuters in a phone interview.

The online gaming industry emerged in the Philippines in 2016 and grew exponentially as operators capitalised on the country's liberal gaming laws to target customers in China, where gambling is banned.

At their peak, Philippine offshore gambling operators, or POGOs, totalled 300 and employed more than 300,000 Chinese workers. But the pandemic and tighter tax rules have forced many to relocate or go underground, Tengco said.

The crackdown was triggered by reports of POGO-related crimes such as human trafficking, torture, kidnapping, and fraudulent activities like credit card, crypto investment, and "love scams" - when criminals adopt fake online identities to persuade victims to give them money.

In March, law enforcers raided a POGO facility in Pampanga province that led to the rescue of more than 800 workers, including Filipino and Chinese nationals, local media reported.

Security officials have also expressed concern over illegal POGOs, with the defence minister saying criminal syndicates posing as POGOs were a national security concern, while the national security council said these illegal activities must not be tolerated.

"The concern is that we should stop these syndicated criminal activities operating out of our base, which weaken our financial standing, our country ratings, (and) corrupt our society," Defence Secretary Gilberto Teodoro said in a statement on Wednesday.

PAGCOR's Tengco said the gaming regulator would comply with the government's final decision on POGOs, which might include banning the industry altogether.

The government is expected to generate 24.5 billion pesos ($417 million) this year in POGO fees and taxes from 46 licensed POGOs, half of which are Chinese firms, Tengco said.

($1 = 58.64 Philippine pesos) (Reporting by Neil Jerome Morales Editing by Mark Potter) - Reuters

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